Caroline McManus. Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the Reading of Women. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2002. 308pp. ISBN 0 87413 768 3.

Matthew Woodcock
University of East Anglia

Woodcock, Matthew. "Review of Caroline McManus, Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the Reading of Women." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.1 (May, 2006) 13.1-6<URL:>.

  1. There have been many studies that examine the relationship between Spenser and Elizabeth I, and identify the different strategies deployed throughout The Faerie Queene in addressing the poet’s ultimate implied reader. Caroline McManus’ book, however, challenges such a narrow conception of Spenser’s female audience and focuses on the poet’s evident awareness of a non-royal female readership. The originality of McManus’ study lies in the attention to the relationship between Spenser’s female characters in the poem and the aristocratic women he sought to fashion as readers. Spenser’s stated general intention set out in the prefatory letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, to ‘fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline’, clearly has a wider applicability than has been previously acknowledged.

  2. Spenser dedicated many of his works to aristocratic figures, including Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, Elizabeth Spencer, Lady Carey and Alice Spencer, Countess of Derby. In addition to apostrophes to Elizabeth I he also includes several direct addresses in The Faerie Queene to a female readership, especially in the more Ariostan book three. Up until now the implied aristocratic female audience of the poem has received relatively little attention, but McManus draws such figures from the text’s margins and considers them in concert with both Spenser’s female characters and contemporary models of female characteristics found in numerous early modern didactic manuals.

  3. McManus’ initial chapters examine both what and how early modern women seem to have read. Working from records of books owned by aristocratic women found in catalogues and inventories, texts and paratexts addressing female readers, and individuals’ journals of domestic and devotional reading, McManus assembles a survey of early modern women’s reading. She reveals that books owned and read did not always align with models for female readers prescribed by pedagogues and moralists. In particular, McManus reveals a female engagement with matters relating to history, politics and theological controversy, as well as with more diversionary works of secular entertainment. As McManus states, the autonomy women exercised as readers ‘reminds us that overly didactic strictures about social behaviour, whether in educational treatises or fictionalized courtesy literatures such as The Faerie Queene, might, or might not, have been carried out’ (47). But there were many concerns expressed by Spenser’s contemporaries that secular reading of romances and the like would lead female readers into wantonness and degradation. It was also suggested in both literary and non-literary texts that unless carefully checked women would intentionally read secular literature for its erotic, titillating content. Nevertheless despite censure from humanists such as Vives and Ascham, chivalric romance was particularly popular reading for women from the late sixteenth century onwards.

  4. McManus begins to apply her contextual analyses to Spenser by examining those female characters in The Faerie Queene (Malecasta and Hellenore) who embody the fears of moralist critics regarding the monstrous effects of romance on women readers. McManus also discusses the Busirane episode from book three, arguing that Britomart provides an alternate reading of Amoret’s suffering within the enchanter’s Petrarchan torture chamber. The martial heroine is neither titillated nor charmed by the sight of Amoret in the chamber, and Spenser (it is suggested) demonstrates how female desire can form alternative readings channelled towards more epic, rather than purely amorous ends. What becomes clear as McManus’ book progresses is a new way of reading The Faerie Queene subversively. The third chapter – which reads Britomart’s adventures in concert with John Harington’s translation of Ariosto and Margaret Tyler’s translation of The Mirrour of Princely Deeds and Knighthood – continues to identify the range of different models for a female readership in Spenser’s poem. The knight of chastity’s ‘reading’ of Merlin’s prophecy demonstrates the significant interpretative agency exercised by potential female readers.

  5. The second half of McManus’ book focuses on virtues that the early modern moralists judged that women should possess: modesty, chastity and piety. Once again Spenser is seen to respond to the complex situation of female courtiers and offer a range of models of virtuous conduct for those women amongst Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting who were forced to sublimate any suggestion of sexual advance or availability but simultaneously secure an advantageous marriage. Medina and Alma represent idealized models of those successfully performing this balancing act, whilst Phaedria and the bathing nymphs in the Bower of Bliss constitute negative examples of Spenserian fast women. McManus also revisits the historical allegory relating to Elizabeth’s disfavour towards Raleigh following his marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton (traditionally identified in Belphoebe’s rejection of Timias) and explores associations between Serena’s fate and that of Raleigh’s wife. The final chapter examines the numerous models of female piety in book one in relation to contemporary devotional discourses read by women and reveals Spenser’s repeated use of ‘holy mother’ figures, exemplars of female piety characterized by imagery associated with maternity and good nurturing.

  6. This is a most useful series of readings of The Faerie Queene that continues to broaden our understanding of Spenserian reception and application and demonstrates the wide-ranging interpretative significance of Spenser’s female characters that are so often viewed in relation to Elizabeth alone. At times it seemed as if the forces to which Spenser’s aristocratic female audience were subject could have been discussed productively in relation to those upon the queen (as in the discussion of how to market and manipulate marriageability in chapter four), but this is surely the stimulus for a reader’s own questions rather than an omission or failing on the author’s part. McManus offers a valuable contribution to scholarship on subversion in Spenser through revealing how the female characters of The Faerie Queene invite a variety of responses from women readers, many of which do not conform to the ‘chaste, silent and obedient’ model posited by the poet’s contemporaries. This book also complements other recent studies on early modern women’s responses to romance, including Helen Hackett’s Women and Romance Fiction in the English Renaissance and Alex Davis’ chapter on Katherine Philips in Chivalry and Romance in the English Renaissance.

Works Cited

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© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).